The problem with much of the personalized attacks that passes for public debate in Sri Lanka is the unfortunate tendency to pin labels on persons having different points of view. This persistent inability to recognise that logical and sustained differences of opinion may be accommodated in healthy debates without resorting to name calling reflects not only on those responsible but also on the nature of our society today.
In a sense, this replicates the unsettling scenes that we have become accustomed to see in Parliament where reasoned debates of earlier times have been replaced by fisticuffs and the most obscene of language so that schoolchildren need to be hurried away from the public galleries of the House by their minders. Both trends reflect different sides of an equally ugly coin.
Quaintly mistaken efforts to deter
In sum, it appears that contrary opinions are scarcely to be tolerated now in this country. For example, if one criticizes the current administration a tad too harshly, thereby touching a sensitive nerve or two on the part of paid propagandists, ergo, one is a UNP supporter. For that matter, take again a favourable reflection on some rarely good prosecutions of gross human rights abuses in the past as compared to the almost total impunity that covers such actions today and one is immediately accused in the most hysterical, crude and slanderous terms of being a 'Chandrika supporter' as opposed to a "Mahinda attacker.'
Amusement aside, such name calling in the quaintly mistaken belief that this will act as a deterrent is a convenient cover to suppress accusing fingers being pointed at a failed governance process, from the Office of the Commissioner of Elections to the Department of the Attorney General to ad hoc and politicized Commissions of Inquiry. The motives behind the name calling become clear only later on when the name callers are challenged head on.
The continuation of past sins
What is forgotten in this unseemly furore is that these criticisms have been levelled against all administrations in Sri Lanka. For example, it will take a profound leap of faith on my part to believe that the UNP was ever, at any point, genuinely interested in bringing about a no holds barred implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. And yet again, the doubtful credit for using Commissions of Inquiry as flawed substitutes for good investigations and prosecutions of gross human rights violators goes to the UNP and none other. Mahinda Rajapaksa, as pithily observed by a perennial cynic the other day in a chance conversation, is only continuing the good traditions of his worthy predecessors with greater verve and fervour as is inevitably the case.
This is, of course, no excuse at all for the transgressions that continue to be committed under his watch. Again, it would require tremendous ingenuity to believe that as such, these Rule of Law transgressions would now decrease. In an environment where the political opposition has not only been almost wiped out but where apolitical critics have been demonized as traitors at the worst and as unpatriotic at the least, it is difficult to believe in such promises in all good faith.
Breakdown at community level
The problem of this breakdown of civilized interaction does not manifest only at the level of so called elite debate. Recently in Trincomalee, I was confronted by a social and religious worker of Tamil ethnicity who observed in a disturbingly matter of fact manner that the Tamil community has been decimated in the country. Now, he said, it will be the turn of the 'Sinhalese minority' who will face what Tamil people faced all these years. Intrigued and wishing to confirm the interpretation of this term in my own mind, I asked as to what he meant and was met by the unhesitating answer that the term 'Sinhalese minority' applied to those who oppose the dominance of the current political regime. My wry comment that this has already happened did not invoke much amusement.
His remarks were made in the backdrop of increased community estrangement in Trincomalee. As much as the Sinhala Only initiative in the early 1950's was tragically the fore runner to an explosion of communal violence that twisted Sri Lankan society viciously out of shape for decades to come, extreme insensitivity to community feelings ranging from post war changes in place names to the positioning of massive Buddha statues in wholly Tamil and Muslim areas have been unfortunate recent manifestations in the East.
Mistakes of the past
Yet whatever may be the outrage that occurs whether at city or village level, and excepting a concerned minority in Sri Lanka, many individuals will continue to be agitated in private rather than engage openly in the public sphere with what so clearly disturbs them, despite the rude heckling that will inevitably follow.
What better way to ensure that this country will, one day, slowly and torturously relive its most gargantuan mistakes of the past?